The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street

An illustrated guide to the signs at Zuccotti Park


From a rational perspective, joining a protest rally is like voting: a complete waste of time. The odds that your voice or your protest sign will make a difference are no better than the odds that your vote will change an election. Yet people do join protests, and people do vote. They do these things not to advance their rational self-interest but to express moral passions and moral identities.

In Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a noisy, festive crowd of hundreds was doing just that when I stopped by on October 8. In an attempt to make sense of the goals and motivations of the protesters there, I brought along a small camera and Moral Foundations Theory, which I developed with psychologists at the University of California at Irvine (Pete Ditto), the University of Chicago (Craig Joseph), and the University of Southern California (Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, and Sena Koleva). This theory, which is based on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder, outlines six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which, we argue, all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals. 

The foundations are like the taste receptors on the tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Each culinary culture creates its own unique cuisine using some combination of these tastes, including elements that lack immediate appeal on their own, such as bitterness. Similarly, each political movement bases its claims on a particular configuration of moral foundations. It would be awfully hard to rally people to your cause without making any reference to care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, or sanctity. 

My colleagues and I found that political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. They are very concerned about victims of oppression, but they rarely make moral appeals based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, or sanctity/degradation. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm but much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation. (You can read our complete research findings at www.MoralFoundations.org.) 

So what is the mix of moral foundations at Occupy Wall Street (OWS)? In my visit to Zuccotti Park, it was clear that the main moral foundation of OWS is fairness, followed by care and liberty. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity, by contrast, were very little in evidence. 


The psychological meaning of fairness is proportionality. Human beings have been engaging in cooperative enterprises for hundreds of thousands of years, and we are now vigilant for signs that anyone is taking out more than he is putting in. We really hate cheaters, slackers, and exploiters. By far the most common message I saw at OWS was that the rich ("the 1 percent") got rich by taking without giving. They cheated and exploited their way to the top. As if that were not bad enough, we the taxpayers then had to bail them out after they crashed the economy, and so now they really owe us for saving their necks. It's high time they started paying what they owe (see photos 1 and 2).

As a point of comparison, a similar look at signs found at the Tea Party rallies (based on a systematic study done by Reason Foundation Polling Director Emily Ekins) suggests that protesters there are also chiefly concerned with fairness. The key to understanding Tea Partiers' morality, though, is that they want to restore the law of karma. They want laziness and cheating to be punished, and they see liberalism and liberal government as an assault on that project. The liberal fairness of OWS diverges from conservative and libertarian fairness in that liberals often think that equality of outcomes is evidence of fairness (see photo 3). 

When everyone's contribution is the same, the proportional outcome is equality. But in a free market system, where some work harder or are more talented or lucky, it will always be the case that some people make a greater contribution than others. They therefore end up taking home a larger share of the pie. Fairness as proportionality guarantees that outcomes will not be equal. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why modern leftists (but not classical liberals) are often hostile to capitalism itself, as were some at the OWS protest (see photos 4 and 5).

Another feature of liberal fairness is that it is often blended with concerns about care for the downtrodden and oppressed. This brings us to the next foundation:


The second most common moral foundation on display at OWS was care. My colleagues and I find that liberals score higher than conservatives and libertarians on all measures of compassion and empathy. Liberals are more "soft-hearted," and this was evident in many signs (see photos 6, 7, and 8).


The moral foundation of liberty was barely evident at OWS in the use of positive terms such as liberty or freedom, even though protesters took to calling Zuccotti Park by its previous name, Liberty Square. Occupy Wall Street is not a rally to "get government off our backs." It's a rally to get government to increase regulation of Wall Street and big business. The only sign of direct appeals to liberty that I saw during my visit was the ironic use of a favored Tea Party slogan to protect and care for vulnerable flowers as seen in photo 9.

Instead, there was a strong emphasis at OWS on the evils of the opposite of liberty, namely oppression. There was a pervasive sense (or hope) that the downtrodden masses ("the 99 percent") were beginning to unite to throw off the yoke of their oppressors ("the 1 percent") (see photo 10). 

This is a process that the anthropologist Chris Boehm has observed in egalitarian societies. When one man tries to act like a leader or overlord, the other men unite into a "reverse dominance hierarchy" to take him down, as illustrated by this protester's sweatshirt showing the unified "99 percent" about to crush the "1 percent" (see photo 11).


The remaining three foundations, which tend to be used more by conservatives than by liberals, were not much in evidence at OWS. There were a few American flags scattered about, but the only direct expression of patriotism that I saw was this rather ambivalent sign, which would not have been very welcome at a Tea Party rally (see photo 12).

There were frequent invocations of solidarity, but this is different from the team-vs.-team tribalism of the loyalty foundation. Rather, liberal solidarity aims to erase boundaries between people and groups, to create harmony, not competition. Compared to conservatives, liberals tend to be universalists and internationalists (see photo 13).

Of course, this solidarity is pursued as an effort to unite "the 99 percent" against "the 1 percent"; OWS protesters are perfectly capable of drawing lines between people. Nonetheless, the psychological dynamic here is exactly what Boehm described as a reaction to oppression by an alpha male. It is very different from the dynamic that emerges from intergroup competition such as gang warfare or the most extreme sports rivalries, as manifested in distinctive symbols, clothing, and heroes, plus an intense focus on expelling outsiders and punishing traitors. None of that was apparent at OWS.


Liberals tend to be wary of authority. I saw no signs suggesting respect for authority, order, or tradition.


The moral foundation of sanctity is based on the psychology of disgust and spirituality. It's the idea that there is a vertical dimension from God at the top to animalistic carnality at the bottom. When conservative Christians condemn drug use and wanton sexuality, when they say that the body is a temple and life begins at conception, these appeals rest on the psychology of sanctity. Liberals tend to make less use of sanctity; they tend toward materialism (not in the sense of consumerism but in the philosophical sense of saying that nothing is divine and nothing is off-limits to human ingenuity and intervention). The cryptic sign in photo 14 would never be seen at a right wing rally.

There was one clear invocation of sanctity and sacredness, a sign declaring a spot to be a "community sacred space" (see photo 15).

The moral foundations of OWS are consistent with the moral foundations of the left more generally: fairness, care, and concerns about oppression. The difference is that fairness is moved up from the second position where we normally find it (below care) to become the No. 1 motivation. This makes sense given that the protests are a response to the perceived cheating, lawbreaking, and greed of the major financial firms. 

Many pundits have commented on the fact that OWS has no specific list of demands, but the protesters' basic message is quite clear: rein in the influence of big business, which has cheated and manipulated its way to great wealth (in part by buying legislation) while leaving a trail of oppressed and impoverished victims in its wake.

Will this message catch on with the rest of the country, much of which also values the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations? If OWS protesters engage in acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American, then I think most Americans will quickly reject them. Furthermore, if the protesters continue to focus on the gross inequality of outcomes in America, they will get nowhere. There is no equality foundation. Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, they won't support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that "the 1 percent" got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that "the 1 percent" abuses its power and oppresses "the 99 percent," then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations. 

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business.

Bonus Reason.tv Video: "Peter Schiff Speaks for the 1 Percent at Occupy Wall Street."